In 2008, New York City mom Lenore Skenazy was shopping with her 9 year-old son. They rode the subway, and that day he begged her to let him ride home alone. Ms. Skenazy decided it was time for some independence and let him. He returned home safely and was ecstatic with his feat. But when Ms. Skenazy wrote about it in a newspaper column, she set off a storm of controversy.
Some called her the “world’s worst mom,” and child protection agencies took note. Others praised her for not being afraid to give her child freedoms not allowed by “helicopter parents,” so-called because they hover over their kids’ every move. Ms. Skenazy recently completed a reality TV series where she coached such parents on letting their kids ride bikes or slice vegetables, to give the kids some independence. The show’s title: World’s Worst Mom.
In the Pediatric Emergency Department, we often roll our eyes at what some kids are allowed to do- ride 4-wheelers or use the microwave. But we only see the kids who get hurt; scads of kids use microwaves without spilling boiling water on themselves, and jump on trampolines without breaking something. The key is teaching children to do these things safely.
Before Ms. Skenazy let her 9 year-old ride the subway alone, she had coached him on reading subway maps and identifying uptown versus downtown trains. It’s the same with kids doing any risky thing, like riding bikes or 4-wheelers. There’s rules and training before setting your kid loose.
Of course, learning to ride a bike requires teaching; kids can’t just get on and ride. But the safety stuff requires more parenting- teaching the rules of the road and enforcing helmet use. When my son wanted to ride to his friend’s house miles away, we went riding together to show how to stay on the right side of the road and cross busy streets safely, and to be sure he knew the way. And we had him call when he arrived so we could relax.
When I was eight years-old, they built a hospital near my house. Construction sites are as good as Disneyworld to a child: piles of dirt to play on, and those big yellow machines! Fortunately the workers took the keys out of the bulldozer; otherwise we would have fired it up and gone for a spin.
One day I ran across the site and into a mud patch. It was deep enough that I sank to my knees, stuck. Remembering the quick-sand scenario in movies, I was scared that I might sink more. I yelled to my buddy, but he stood helplessly at the edge of the patch, no rope or stick handy to save me. Since no other rescue was likely, I decided I had to save myself and began to slog my way to a big rock nearby. Three or four heaves in that direction and I was able to hug the rock and haul myself out.
Parents worry about letting their kids out into the world. If my folks had known about that deep mud, would they have let me go to the site? Perhaps not, but back then things seemed safer. There wasn’t 24-hour cable news, needing to fill a whole day with attention-grabbing stories to scare parents. Every child abduction in the country now gets breathless attention. Before cable and internet there were only brief TV news programs and newspapers; no space to report every child tragedy in the nation.
In reality, back then children were actually less safe. Crime was rising in the 1970s and 1980s, peaking in 1993. Now there is 50% less crime than when I was a kid. In addition to a more dangerous environment, kids went out without cell phones or bike helmets. So the world turns out to be pretty safe for kids; the odds that your kid will be kidnapped or seriously hurt are very tiny.
And children yearn for freedom. They want to explore, push boundaries, and be proud of their accomplishments. Lenore Skenazy’s boy was beside himself with joy at going home alone on the New York subway. While many think that’s extreme, even the FAA lets 14 year-olds fly gliders solo. Makes a bike ride across town seem pretty tame.